Why I can no longer donate to Wellesley College.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Jun 01 2014

Because the undergraduate education I received at Wellesley College has been so important in my life, and because I believe all college students deserve the intellectual engagement Wellesley gave me, I can no longer donate to Wellesley College.

The education Wellesley College gave me has been central to how I understand what it is to learn and to participate fully in the world. It helped me see knowledge as more than a fixed list of things-to-know but rather as a body that was always in flux, always under construction, always in contact with the wider world. It engaged me seriously, as an individual and as a member of a coordinated learning community with my Wellesley classmates, with professors who were building knowledge, not just describing knowledge others had built.

As a professor at San José State University, a teaching-focused institution in the California State University system, I am teaching a very different student population than Wellesley's. Approximately half of our students are first-generation college students. Many of our full-time students work 40 hours a week or more to pay for college (and, frequently, to support their families). A heartbreakingly large proportion of our students arrive at our university with the expectation that a college degree will be of merely instrumental value (to help them get a job, to secure them a better salary at the job they have), having never encountered a teacher who believed in their ability to learn broadly and deeply -- or who believed that they were entitled to learning for its own sake, for their own enjoyment.

These are students who need an educational experience like the one Wellesley provided for me. My mission as a professor is to give them as much of this experience as I can.

This is not an easy task, when budget crises have meant ballooning class sizes and dwindling resources to support instruction. It is even harder when administrators, looking to cut costs, decide it it appropriate to replace live, engaged, expert instruction in the classroom with packaged massive online courses from private vendors like edX.

Courses like those Wellesley College has created and licensed to edX.

I recognize that the faculty involved in creating these courses probably did so with the best of intentions, hoping to share their enthusiasm and expertise with people in the world with no access to college courses other than the internet.

However, the MOOCs they have created have become tools for other purposes, used to "save money" (by eliminating faculty) and to replace meaningful classroom instruction that is working for our student populations.

This serves not to increase access to higher education but to reduce it, at least for the students served by public university systems like mine. At this point in the grand disruptive online experiment, all indications are that MOOCs "work" for self-directed learners, the "ambitious autodidacts" who seems always to be the prime beneficiaries of educational innovations, but that they don't work well for "students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives" -- that is, for students like mine.

Private entities like edX are distributing MOOCs that are being used to replace classroom instruction that strives to give students just a taste of Wellesley's intellectual engagement with an online experience that Wellesley faculty would (I hope) never dream of substituting for their own classroom engagement with their students.

A hallmark of my education at Wellesley was that the subject matter was never just confined to the classroom. Whatever the subject, we were challenged to think hard about its real impact in the world. I implore Wellesley's faculty and administration to think hard about the real context in which the MOOCs they are creating are deployed, about the effects, intended and unintended, that follow upon their use.

By participating in edX without attaching conditions to their MOOCs that prevent their use to replace classroom education that is working and to undermine meaningful educational access, Wellesley College is hurting my students and my ability as a professor to give them some of what Wellesley gave me.

So long as Wellesley College continues to participate in the weaponization of education through edX, I cannot in good conscience contribute another dollar to Wellesley College.

Janet D. Stemwedel
Class of 1989

24 responses so far

A thought for those who are mindful about their legacy in their discipline.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Apr 19 2014

It is possible that, once you shuffle off this mortal coil, people will remember you for your scholarly contributions to your field.

However, it is also possible that they will remember you for your consistently inappropriate behavior, your thoroughgoing lack of respect for the boundaries of the students you were supposed to be nurturing rather than exploiting.

It is possible that, in the fullness of time, the people in your discipline who were given the academic equivalent of the "Grandpa is just that way" excuse for your behavior will come to the conclusion that there was no good excuse for your behavior, that, rather than speaking no ill of the dead, they will describe your conduct for what it was.

As well, they may start to recognize the complicity of the other "grown-ups" in their field who offered the "Grandpa is just that way" excuse for what it was.

If some of those enablers, still living, are mindful about their legacy within their discipline, they might want to reflect on that and make some amends before they, too, go to the great beyond.

No responses yet

Sometimes I need a Venn diagram.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Apr 14 2014

In honor of the last season of Mad Men, whose first episode premieres tonight.

(If you're still catching up an seasons 1 through 6, there are spoilers embedded within.)

DrapersWomen

One response so far

Pub-Style Science: Is a scientist without philosophy like a fish without a bicycle?

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Apr 07 2014

There will be a Pub-Style Science discussion of why scientists might want to think about epistemology in particular and (perhaps) philosophy more generally on Tuesday, April 8, 2014, starting 9 PM EDT/6 PM PDT. You can watch the hashtag #pubscience for more details (including the link that will let you watch the Google Hangout once it's hanging out).

I've heard it said that an understanding of philosophy of science is about as useful to a scientist as a hydrodynamics textbook would be to a fish. Indeed, I've heard it said that philosophy of science is worse than useless to a scientist -- that it a malign influence on one's ability to do science.

I'm disinclined to believe these rejections of the value of philosophy for the scientific practitioner. Then again, I left a path as a scientific practitioner to become a philosopher. You do the math.

Anyways, in advance of the discussion Tuesday night, I thought I'd point you toward a couple ancient posts I wrote on philosophy of science and science, plus some other things worth reading before the conversation:

A branch of learning that 'need not be learned'?: In which I examine a claim by scientist, Nobel Laureate, and notorious pre-internet troll Sir Peter Medawar that "scientific methodology" (which might be the picture delivered by philosophy of science) "need not be taught or, if taught, need not be learned".

Does writing off philosophy of science cost the scientists anything?: In which I argue that philosophy of science may be useful to scientific practitioners who want to communicate productively with people outside their narrow scientific disciplines.

You might find the comment threads on both of those posts interesting (depending on your tolerance for interlocutors committed to talking past each other).

You should also read Michael Tomasson's post setting the stage for Tuesday's discussion.

On the question of whether postmodern strands of philosophy might have a particularly malign impact on one's understanding of science, I recommend this Storify'd conversation.

No matter what we end up deciding, I expect it will be an interesting conversation.

4 responses so far

Job offer negotiations and relationships with our future colleagues.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Mar 19 2014

Many pixels have already been devoted to discussing the case of W, the philosophy job candidate who says her job offer was rescinded after she inquired with the department making the offer about what adjustments in start-date, salary, new teaching preps per year, pre-tenure sabbatical, and maternity leave might be possible. Rather than indicating which requests were just not possible, the department's response to the inquiry withdrew the offer of employment entirely with the justification that the items about which W asked indicated "an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered."

In case you've been glued to your grading instead of the internet, The Philosophy Smoker has a nice round-up of the commentary. It's worth noting too that some have expressed doubts that this try to negotiate/lose the offer scenario could really have happened as described. Whether it did or not, I think this is a good opportunity to examine the relationship at the center of negotiations between a hiring department and a job candidate -- namely, the relationship between future colleagues.

When an academic department is conducting a job search, it is trying to hire someone to address the department's needs. These needs may include teaching particular courses, developing new curriculum, advising students, spreading out committee work, contributing to a department culture that supports good pedagogy, productive research, and so forth. The specific needs of a department and the specific culture its members create are very much connected to facts on the ground -- whether it is part of a college or university that is teaching-focused or research-focused, how willing the administration is to release funds to the department, how many students the department serves, how many faculty members there are to take on the shared work.

Search committees looking for a good "fit" between job candidates and the faculty position they are trying to fill seek not only candidates who can address the department's needs but also candidates who show some grasp of those needs, some awareness of (or at least interest in) the facts on the ground that constrain how those needs can be met. If the department's primary need is for a new faculty member to teach a significant part of the curriculum and the candidate asks to be excused from all pre-tenure teaching duties, that would probably indicate that the candidate didn't grok the department's needs and might not be able to contribute enthusiastically to meeting them.

However, a new faculty hire is not like a wireless learning-delivery device. A new faculty hire is a human who, in the course of helping to achieve the shared goals of the department, can be legitimately expected to pursue goals of her own.

Some of these individual goals ought to be goals shared by the department hiring the job candidate, chief among them creating conditions in which the new hire can contribute to meeting the department's needs in a sustainable way over the long term. One of the big advantages here for the department is that creating such conditions can help obviate the need for another faculty search, a time- and labor-intensive process in the best of circumstances.

When you've gone through the trouble of a search, you don't want to hire a candidate who'll end up leaving in a few years for a job somewhere else that she perceives as a better fit for her needs. Neither do you want to hire someone who you'll have to replace in six or seven years because she cannot do what she needs to do to get tenured.

Ideally, you want a job candidate who has been reflective about what she may need to be able to do a good job meeting the department's needs and meeting her own needs -- including being able to establish her case for retention, tenure, and promotion.

A job candidate who hash't given this thought may put herself in situations where she cannot do an adequate job meeting the department's needs -- or where she can meet those needs, but only by courting burnout or ignoring other tasks she needs to do to get tenured.

This is a place where the case of W suggests to me a candidate who demonstrated thoughtfulness about how to support a department's teaching mission in a sustainable way. In a small department, faculty members each need to do significant teaching to cover the curriculum. But preparing a course that works well with the actual population of students to be taught benefits tremendously from feedback from those actual students and modification in response to that feedback. W inquired whether it was possible to cap her new course preps at three per year for the first three years. Preparing three new courses per year requires substantial labor in itself. Road-testing them to make sure they meet the students' needs as well in practice as in imagination is the kind of thing that ensures the prepared courses really are serving the needs of the department offering them. As well, limiting new preps while the new hire is getting immersed in the culture of the department is a reasonable way not to spread her too thin.

It may be that facts on the ground mean that the new hire will need to have more new course preps than this or else the department's needs will not be met. But for a candidate to recognize the labor involved in doing the job right should be an advantage, not a disadvantage, in meeting those needs.

The dance between search committees and candidates is complicated and emotionally fraught, each side trying to evaluate "fit" on the basis of necessarily incomplete information since many questions are only answered when the new hire actually succeeds or doesn't in meeting the particular needs in the particular circumstances. In the absence of a perfectly accurate view of the future, evaluating how well a candidate fills particular curricular needs, understands and can support the mission of the department, and will be able to pursue their individual goals (with respect to pedagogy, scholarship, professional development, work-life balance) in this environment requires honest communication on both sides.

Candidates should be honest about their long-range aspirations and should not pretend to be a good fit for a position if they are not. Search committees should be expansive in their recognition of the plurality of individual goals that probably fit with the department's needs. Both sides should understand that job candidates are frequently in a moment where they are legitimately poised between -- and open to -- different professional environments and trajectories, different people they could become within their professions.

It's suboptimal for a department when a candidate pretends to be a good fit and accepts a job merely to stave off unemployment until her dream job somewhere else comes along. By the same token, it's suboptimal for a candidate when a department cares only for its own needs rather than taking the candidate's individual needs into account.

A job candidate is not a mere means to fulfill your department's ends. Buyer's market or not, a job candidate should not be treated as a supplicant deserving of punishment for asking questions in good faith. A job candidate is your potential colleague. A job candidate to whom an offer of employment has been extended should be treated as your future colleague.

Punishing your future colleague for asking what kind of support is available for her professional endeavors (including her professional endeavors that directly address needs your department hopes to meet by hiring her) suggests there is something badly wrong with your understanding of your relationship with that future colleague. It suggests that you are OK with using her, and it probably doesn't bode well for your relationship with any new colleagues you manage to hire.

Whatever the facts on the ground may be, exploiting members of your professional community as mere means rather than recognizing them as legitimate ends in themselves is bad behavior -- the kind of behavior job candidates should not expect from hiring departments. If that's the relationship you expect to enact with your new faculty hire, you should at least have the decency to spell this out when you make an offer so job candidates will have no illusions about what it is you're offering.

(Crossposted at Academe Blog)

One response so far

ScienceOnline, #scioSafe, and ways forward together.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Mar 08 2014

This document grew out of the #scioSafe session at ScienceOnline Together 2014. It is an attempt to reflect the sentiments of a substantial portion of the ScienceOnline community, though we recognize and appreciate that this community is large and holds a diversity of viewpoints. We offer this document in the sincere belief that we share with the leadership of ScienceOnline a desire to make this organization and its endeavors going forward shining examples of the good that can come from powerful collaborations between motivated people.

What we are asking for:

1. More frequent and clearer communication from the ScienceOnline Board to the community.
Members of the community feel out of the loop on changes that the Board has planned but not fully implemented, on actions that the Board may be considering (or may have considered but rejected) and on the reasons that the Board has chosen to follow a particular course of action rather than the alternatives. Whenever possible, we would appreciate that communications from the Board include:

  • what was done
  • why it was done
  • alternatives that were considered and why they were rejected
  • explicit identification of instances where deliberative details cannot be shared due to legal, financial, or other considerations.

2. More transparent mechanisms for engaging with and responding to communication from the community to the Science Online Board.
Members of the ScienceOnline community who have made suggestions, shared concerns, or asked questions of leadership are frequently unsure whether what they have communicated has been heard and shared with the Board. We would appreciate, wherever possible, public acknowledgement of the feedback communicated to the Board, as well an indication of how (if at all) the Board plans to act on it.

3. An expanded ScienceOnline Board of Directors, including members from more diverse background.
We recognize that there are current plans to expand membership of the existing ScienceOnline Board of Directors. We encourage the organization to move efficiently on this expansion. We ask that the expertise of members of the Board and their responsibilities to the organization be clearly and publicly communicated. In addition, we ask that the selection criteria for Board members and timeline for member searches be made transparent. We suggest that one or more of these appointments be directed at the goal of improving representation of and communication with the larger ScienceOnline community.

4. A strengthened response team and more clarity on available official responses to reporting to support meaningful implementation of ScienceOnline conference Code of Conduct and Harassment Policy.
We applaud the Board of ScienceOnline for adopting a strong Harassment Policy and conference Code of Conduct. We urge the Board to take the necessary steps to ensure that these policies can be enforced to achieve welcoming, inclusive conferences. These steps might include hiring external professionals to serve as the response team or providing direct training of a community volunteer response team by external professionals. In addition, we ask the Board to seek guidance from external professionals to create a mechanism for anonymous reporting of incidents. As well, in light of the large barrier that exists to people speaking up about conduct that makes them uncomfortable, we request that the Board clarify the likely range of responses to conference-goer reports. We recognize that some of these steps will have costs associated with them, but we are willing to help the Board meet those costs.

5. A clarification of Bora Zivkovic's relationship to the ScienceOnline organization and its conferences, events, and initiatives going forward.
We appreciate the swiftness with which Bora Zivkovic was removed from leadership of the ScienceOnline organization in the wake of revelations that he harassed multiple women, including women within the ScienceOnline community. However, the last official statement from the ScienceOnline organization specified that he would not be attending any ScienceOnline events in 2014. Members of the community would like to know what happens after 2014. We ask the Board to seriously consider making the separation between Zivkovic and the ScienceOnline organization, its conferences, events, and initiatives permanent.

6. Serious exploration of transition to a membership organization.
We recognize that ScienceOnline is currently incorporated as an educational non-profit rather than a membership organization. This means that at present, individual participants in ScienceOnline events are essentially customers. Active segments of the community banding together to provide suggestions or feedback, to volunteer their efforts or raise money for the organization, function more or less as lobbying groups, whose only recourse if their feedback is not welcome or seriously engaged is to vote with their wallets and their feet. While this relationship flows logically from the current organizational structure of ScienceOnline, it leaves members of the community in a suboptimal relationship with the organization and its leadership. Recognizing that reorganizing ScienceOnline would require time and resources to navigate bureaucratic hurdles, we nonetheless urge the Board to consider the benefits to both members and the organization that may flow from actively engaging the community in the ongoing business, large and small, of ScienceOnline.

7. An entirely elected leadership for the ScienceOnline organization.
In the event of a successful transition from its current organizational structure to a membership organization, we hope that the Board of Directors will become a democratically elected body, representative of and accountable to the interests and needs of a diverse and vibrant ScienceOnline community.

Background for the #scioSafe session:

A significant number of attendees of ScienceOnline Together 2014 came to the #scioSafe session at 12:00 noon on Saturday March 1, 2014, in the lobby of the McKimmon Center. (Those who were taking a headcount put the attendance at something above 65.)

This was not a session in the official conference program, and so was announced in a tweet just two hours before the session was to start. Because the word was spread primarily through Twitter, a number of people didn't know the session was happening until it was underway or until after it had wrapped up. Also, there were six other officially scheduled sessions going on concurrently (at least two of which I had wanted to attend). So, since humans can only be in one place at a time and are always making the best choices they can with the information they have, we heard the voices of the people who came.

It's worth noting that a number of us who felt the need for a session like this -- the session some of us thought "Boundaries, Behavior, and Being an Ally" was going to be -- had been asking Anton Zuiker and Karyn Traphagen to put something official on the schedule before the end of the conference. Since an official session was not scheduled, we put one together in the spirit of ScienceOnline's unconference style.

Indeed, once this session was organized, ScienceOnline leadership made themselves available to engage with those convened and their concerns. Executive Director Karyn Traphagen spoke to us right before session began, indicating that she was busy attending to logistical details but would be available to speak to anyone who wanted to during the lunch session. Board members Scott Rosenberg and Anton Zuiker asked if they could join us in the session but were asked if they could let us convene without them, the better to be candid about our experiences and hopes going forward.

There was agreement within the session that participants would respect requests not to transmit particular contributions to the session via social media or other means.

Summary of what was expressed in the #scioSafe session:

Many people expressed their hurt with how the leadership of the ScienceOnline organization had dealt with their needs and concerns, especially around issues of harassment and pressures not to discuss it, to get over it, to forgive on someone else's timeline.

Some expressed concern that there was never a clear official acknowledgment at the conference from the leadership of the harm done to members of the community by harassment from one of the founders of ScienceOnline, and moreover there was never a clear official acknowledgment at the conference from the leadership of the harm done to members of the community by the minimization of that harassment, casting those upset by it as "bitter," by another founder of ScienceOnline still in a leadership position. The impact of Anton Zuiker's post of January 2014 was deep, with many in attendance expressing that they were not sure if they would ever be able to trust his judgment again.

The lack of official acknowledgment of particular events, more than one person shared, conveyed a message that we should not use the ScienceOnline conference spaces to name and discuss problems like harassment, nor to process our responses together as a community. Some pointed to the "Boundaries, Behavior, and Being an Ally" session as one where they hoped to find such a space but were thwarted by the way the session was moderated. Others mentioned clear (and unfriendly) signals from members of ScienceOnline leadership that continuing to discuss these issues, whether face to face or via social media, was inappropriate, a refusal to let go of things.

In short, people perceived a lack of official transparency from the board of ScienceOnline, both about specific events and general stance towards harassment and responses to it, that meant many of us had to keep having a conversation about the conversation we were not having (or were getting the message that we were not supposed to be having). Multiple people in attendance expressed that they want to be able to move on from this conversation to focus on the other topics on the program but that they felt they could not until this issue of climate had been addressed. The official silence from leadership paired with the unofficial pressure from certain members of ScienceOnline leadership to keep quiet or get over it made the ScienceOnline Together 2014 conference feel unsafe.

It's worth noting that new attendees at the session also identified the official silence on specific events as alienating, describing their feelings of being out of the loop and wondering if they were really a part of the community.

A number of the conference volunteers on the response team, tasked with helping conference-goers with incidents of harassment or violations of the conference Code of Conduct, shared their concerns that they may not have been given the training, tools, and especially support they needed to fulfill their roles. In particular, they felt concerned about their ability to effectively respond to harassment when, ultimately, response to their reports would be left to management. The lack of clear (and enforceable) consequences for violations of these policies, coupled with tenuous trust for ScienceOnline leadership, meant many in attendance had little confidence that the harassment policy or Code of Conduct would do much.

A question was raised about what mechanisms, if any, were in place in the event that those in leadership positions violated either of these policies. Given the current reporting structure, those present wondered how members of the ScienceOnline board, for example, would (or could) be held accountable for engaging in a harassing or disrespectful manner with a conference-goer. People expressed that it was hard, in the current climate, to have faith that the proper channels would work.

The conversation shifted to the broader question of the relationship between the community and the ScienceOnline organization and its leadership. Some present wanted more clarity about what the leadership's goals are for the organization, and about where the community fit into those goals. There was a recognition within the assembled group that Science Online's status as an educational non-profit puts constraints on its activities and its priorities, but there was also a desire for a clearer explanation of what that meant as far as the involvement of members of the community and accountability to their interests and needs.

Some suggested that a significantly bigger board (of 10-15 members) could help ensure better representation of the diverse interests of the community. Others suggested that there should be at least one community-appointed member of the board (although the group recognized that the logistics of this could be complicated). Still others voiced the opinion that reincorporating as a membership organization would be a better way to ensure that the organization and the community were accountable to each other.

Despite these differing views, there was wide agreement that the community would benefit from a clear statement of how the leadership of ScienceOnline sees the community in the mission of the organization, and a clear statement of how, if at all, leadership of ScienceOnline sees itself and the organization as accountable to the community and its needs.

Signed by:

Brian Abraham

Eva Amsen

Michele Banks

Aatish Bhatia

Deborah Blum

Bethany Brookshire

Raychelle Burks

Katy Chalmers

Kate Clancy

Russ Creech

Jen Davison

Lali DeRosier

David Dobbs

Drug Monkey

John Dupuis

Peter Edmonds

Nicholas Evans

Emily Finke

Matthew Francis

Suzanne E. Franks

Simon Frantz

Sonia Furtado Neves

Greg Gbur

Jacquelyn Gill

Brian Glanz

Dwayne Godwin

Stephen Granade

David Grinspoon

Marga Gual Soler

Nicole Gugliucci

Tara Haelle

Samuel Hansen

Kelly Hills

Frances Hocutt

Karen James

Anne Jefferson

Eric Michael Johnson

Madhusudan Katti

Greg Laden

Pascale Lane

Tom Levenson

Ben Lillie

Rachael Ludwick

David Manly

Erik Martin

Maryn McKenna

Joseph Meany

Elizabeth Moon

PZ Myers

Brent Neal

Liz Neeley

Kelly Oakes

Jeffrey Perkel

PhysioProf

Erin Podolak

Sandra Porter

Elizabeth Preston

Catherine Qualtrough

Kathleen Raven

Eve Rickert

Alberto Roca, Executive Director, DiverseScholar

Adrienne Roehrich

Lauren Rugani

Matt Russell

Travis Saunders

Marie-Claire Shanahan

Matt Shipman

Justin Starr

Janet D. Stemwedel

Melanie Tannenbaum

Andrew David Thaler

John Timmer

Holly Tucker

Brandi VanAlphen

Hannah Waters

Mindy Weisberger

Allie Wilkinson

Emily Willingham

Natalie Willoughby

Josh Witten

Ed Yong

David Zaslavsky

If you would like to add your name to the list of signatories, please leave a comment to let us know.

70 responses so far

Analyzing to avoid.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Feb 01 2014

From the American Philosophical Association's Committee on the Status of Women report on CU-Boulder philosophy department, this paragraph on page 7 really jumped out at me:

The Department uses pseudo-philosophical analyses to avoid directly addressing the situation. Their faculty discussions revolve around the letter rather than the spirit of proposed regulations and standards. They spend too much time articulating (or trying to articulate) the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior instead of instilling higher expectations for professional behavior. They spend significant time time debating footnotes and "what if" scenarios instead of discussing what they want their department to look and feel like. In other words, they spend time figuring out how to get around regulations rather than focusing on how to make the department supportive of women and family-friendly.

(Bold emphasis in original.)

What the report is pointing to here is the chronic rules-lawyering, the looking for an exception to defeat any attempts at formulating useful descriptions, the valorization of the critical project to the exclusion of even a glance towards the positive project -- in short, the kind of stuff that makes people hate being around a certain kind of philosopher (or "skeptic," or debate team champion).

The complicated hypotheticals and counterfactuals and Devil's advocacy get in the way of acknowledging actual things happening to actual people and working out something like a strategy (even if it's an imperfect one) to change things so people don't have to experience that sort of bad thing so much going forward.

Also, maybe not coincidentally, such pseudo-philosophical analyses keep the people engaging in them in their comfort zone (framing arguments, looking for counterexamples) rather than making them do the uncomfortable work of changing how they treat each other.

We can do better than that.

4 responses so far

Civility, respect, and the project of sharing a world.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Jan 24 2014

In recent days, this corner of the blogosphere has come back to the question of what constitutes civil engagement online (and, perhaps, offline).

If you've not being keeping up with the events that spurred this iteration of the conversation, you might want to read this, this, this, this, and this as background. However, believe me when I say the discussion in this space -- in this post -- is about the broader issue, and that you are not invited to weigh in here on behalf of your "team" in the recent events.

I'm someone who "does" ethics for a living, and my sense is that at its most basic level, ethics is a matter of sharing a world with other people.

Sometimes that world is one where we're sharing physical space, close enough to look each other in the eye or punch each other on the arm. Other times, the world in question is a virtual space in which we interact primarily by way of words on a screen.

Either way, whether sounds or strings of characters, the words we use are connected to ideas, and the people sending out or taking up those words are humans with their own interests, histories, social environments, grasp of the language, powers of empathy. These humans have privileged access to their own thoughts, intentions, and emotions, but not to those of the others with whom they're sharing a world. The words passed back and forth are part of how a human might get some (necessarily incomplete) information about what's going on in other humans' heads.

Conversation, in other words, is a hugely important tool for us in the project of sharing a world. So, arguably, figuring out what's happening when our conversations derail could help us do a better job of sharing that world. Continue Reading »

11 responses so far

How we construct 'failure' and professional communities.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Jan 07 2014

Bethany Brookshire (perhaps better known in the blogosphere as SciCurious) has posted moving personal musings on her experience "failing" as an academic scientist and of being failed by the system that trained her to be one. She notes that grant-writing was the canary in the career coal mine for her. While she loved doing research, and still loves writing (which has become her professional focus in the aftermath of her tenure track faculty aspirations), she found she couldn't generate new, important, and fundable ideas to drive a research agenda. Indeed, Brookshire's experience of scientific training was that mentors weren't teaching her how to generate such ideas, nor even giving her many opportunities to try doing so. It wasn't until her postdoctoral research that she discovered that what felt like an essential ingredient for success as an academic scientist was not a tool in her toolbox.

And yet, her scientific training seemed to have a singular focus on pointing trainees toward a career as an academic scientist, preferably at a research-focused university. She writes:

I drank the academic koolaid HARD, and believed that "success" looked like a tenure track position. It doesn't help that other people drank the koolaid, too. I have been called a failure, a quitter. I've been told that it's my fault that I didn't stay to be a role model to women in science. Every time I interact with people from my "former life", I feel like I failed them, failed my training, failed myself. I feel like I should have worked harder, worked more, maybe not had a blog (something that has been mentioned to me many, many times) or studied harder or been more careful, somewhere.

I know now that 80% of PhDs won't get a TT position. I think I always knew, deep down, that I wasn't in the top 20%. And I like what I do now! I'm good at it! It's fun! It's interesting! I like the people I work with and the things we talk about and the atmosphere. I feel like I am learning and growing every day. I think I can be successful in this. I think I can still make a difference in the world, maybe a really, really powerful one. Possibly a bigger difference than I ever could have made in science. But it's not academia, and sometimes, it still feels like failure.

Maybe academia failed me in more than one way. Maybe it would have been better had I NOT had that koolaid to drink. If it had been openly acknowledged and "ok" for people to go after non-TT positions (everyone SAYS it's ok, of course, if asked, they will always SAY it's ok and encouraged. But what they say, and what they do, are very different things).

As someone who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and then promptly leaked out of the science pipeline myself, I can identify with the feelings Brookshire describes. I recognize the anxiety involved in plotting a career trajectory and then trying to discover or decide whether you're suited for the form of life of that career. I also remember seeking, but not always finding, the information I would need to make this discovery or decision. Getting that information earlier, rather than later, could make a difference, informing how you invest your time and effort -- and whether you cling to your original plans or explore other possible trajectories instead.

I'm using both "discover" and "decide" above because I recognize there are differences of opinion here, and though I have my own hunches, the jury's still out. "Discovery" suggests to me that there are objective facts about the skills and inclinations required to succeed as an academic scientist, as well as hard limits to what someone lacking them could do to get them. "Decision," on the other hand, frames things in terms of the ends one sets for oneself (given one's skills and inclinations, but a whole mess of other factors besides).

The setting of ends as a feat of human agency matters here, since "failure" is always relative to some particular goal. The hard question that those training new scientists (or new members of other disciplines more broadly) really should grapple with is who is setting the goal? Who is judging particular trajectories worth pursuing or not?

For those being trained in a discipline at the Ph.D. level, it is very hard not to internalize the voice of the advisor with respect to what "success" looks like. It is also very common for the definition of "success" against which you are judged -- against which you come to judge yourself -- to be very narrow indeed.

This is a problem for the people being trained who discover (sometimes quite late in the process) that the odds of "success" after all of their hard work are much lower than they imagined. It creates conditions where social ties forged in the crucible of one's training become fragile because of the Malthusian competition in conditions of increasing scarcity.

Academic science red in tooth and claw may not have much of an actual body count, but not succeeding in the one approved trajectory (and further, believing that success in that trajectory is a matter of pure merit rather than of non-deterministic factors) can render you someone discounted, dead to your chosen profession, forgotten by those you trained with and those who trained you.

This is a problem for people being trained in these disciplines, but it isn't just a problem for them. It's also a problem for their disciplines.

I imagine at this point someone might pipe up and assert that the point of Ph.D. training is precisely to produce additional academic researchers in the field -- in other words, that it is nothing more and nothing less than career training for the One True Path.

If that were so, of course, it might surely be humane to train fewer people, or ethical to admit that the cynics are right that Ph.D. programs in the sciences exist largely to recruit throngs of relatively cheap laborers to do research for the scientists advising them. As well, if the whole point of the Ph.D. program were to provide job training for the One True Path, then the training offered is often pretty deficient, missing vital components like serious attention to grant writing, working with the IACUC or the IRB, teaching, mentoring, or being an effective member of a collaborative team or a committee.

Maybe we should recognize that another reason for engaging in Ph.D.-level training is to learn how new knowledge is built in a discipline by actually participating in building some.

Further, we could acknowledge that, while the skills developed in learning how to build new knowledge in your field are essential in pursuing the One True Path (in which you would devote your career to building new knowledge in your field), these skills also have the potential to be applicable in a wide range of other situations and careers. We could notice that people might have an interest in seeing the knowledge-building from the inside without wanting to make a lifetime commitment to building more knowledge.

Recognizing broader value and utility of the lessons learned from being immersed in knowledge-building is the kind of thing that could change both the experience of being a Ph.D. trainee and of being part of a professional community.

If there is One True Path that defines success, that makes it harder to explore other trajectories or to seek the training, experiences, or information one might want to evaluate them. Doing so is viewed as defeatist thinking or a distraction from preparation for the One True Path (not to mention from generating results from your advisor's research projects).

If there is One True Path, advisors and graduate programs can convince themselves that they have no individual or collective responsibility for providing any of the training, experiences, or information relevant to other career trajectories. Why would you need any of that in a program focused on preparing you for the One True Path? Indeed, the people training you, those who have succeeded on the One True Path, may say, "What know I of other paths? Information about requirements of those paths I have not. Train you for them I cannot." (Like Yoda, advisors sometimes speak with syntax that is challenging for trainees to follow.)

If we embrace the One True Path as defining both what counts as professional success for trainees and who even counts as properly in our professional community, we doom large proportions of those trained to failure and professional death. In so doing, those charged with the task of training new members of the profession squander the potentially rich network they might be building of people trained in their discipline who have succeeded in other paths -- people who could, among other things, share training, experiences, or information with those in the process of learning how to build new knowledge in the discipline, with those still in the process of deciding their own trajectories.

Recognizing that some of the people engaged in learning how to build new knowledge in the discipline may end up choosing other trajectories for themselves doesn't lessen the value of your discipline. Recognizing that the skills developed during Ph.D. trainings have broader applicability doesn't lessen the value of Ph.D. training. Indeed, noticing the utility of those skills in a wide array of situations would argue for greater value. Sending the tentacles of your disciplinary community further into the world would speak to the relevance of your discipline.

Cedar Riener explains this quite nicely:

The gatekeeping scientists that have told Sci she is a failure, or not a real scientist, think the currency of science should be creating new knowledge (and new, expensive, fundable knowledge, at that). What they don’t realize is that by denying the multiplicity of ways of being a scientist, in seeking to carefully guard the prestige they have so carefully amassed, they are diminishing their own status. In chipping away at their own exclusive island, they are ignoring the public sea levels of discontent with science that continue to rise. The biologist might snicker, as political science gets its entire NSF funding cut, thinking “Well, it wasn’t a real science after all.” But the biologist ignores that just because he is standing on higher ground, doesn’t mean that the logic of people like Tom Coburn will spare basic biological science. Too many legislators are happy to call biology science, but really what they want is immediately applicable medical research. Which results in idiotic statements like Sarah Palin mocking fruit fly research and real harm to basic science funding.

So here’s my challenge to Sci (and hearty defense of my own work): You ARE a scientist. Stand on that island and say “I am Science, hear me roar!” and do the things you love to do, promote science, explain science, call out shady science, etc. This too is science. If it is not we are all lost. Science will not regain public trust through careful exclusivity and identity policing.

Defining success for those training in a discipline in terms of One True Path -- even if we only do it implicitly (say, by describing everything else as an "alternate" career path and professing our helplessness to prepare trainees for those) -- means setting up most trainees for failure. It means recognizing a much smaller and less diverse professional community, one that is less well-positioned and less able to interact with the larger society than it might be if success were defined more broadly.

It means disrespecting trainees' abilities to set their own ends. It means undervaluing their happiness.

Why on earth would anyone want to join a professional community that did that?

(Crossposted at Academe Blog)

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A meditation on the expectation of trust.

(by Janet D. Stemwedel) Jan 05 2014

You should trust me.

Sure, when the first public word of my bad behavior came out, I claimed the account used theatrical language to make it sound worse than it was and flat-out lied to you that I had never ever engaged in any such bad behavior with anyone else.

But you should trust me.

Yes, I used the cover of friendship, your loyalty and my apparent track record of not-misbehaving with hundreds of women (including you!), of being a good guy except for one single lapse of judgment (which I swore was not as bad as it sounded, because that woman who you didn't know was trying to take me down), to ask you privately to convince a couple other people that I was still a good guy. I guess it was awkward when you discovered I'd split up the list of people who needed convincing and asked other people to do this too? And when you discovered that I described the task with one of the people I assigned to you as "getting her to put down the pitchfork". In retrospect, that probably seemed kind of manipulative of me.

But you should trust me, I totally get how what I did was wrong, and I won't do it again.

Sure, I haven't actually acknowledged that lying to you and trying to manipulate you to protect my reputation and relationships was a bad thing to do. I haven't acknowledged that it harmed you. I haven't said sorry.

But you should trust that I am sorry and that I won't do it again. I shouldn't need to say it.

Yes, it turns out I was also actively putting out disinformation about just how much of the diversity at meetings and workshops in these circles was a direct result of my intervention. OK, I guess I should have suspected that after some of my lies to you started unraveling you'd do the legwork to uncover these lies, too. But I really am a champion of diversity, and the community really would do worse with diversity without my active involvement in it.

You should trust me on that.

And sure, after an extremely brief hiatus from the spaces where I damaged relationships and burned trust, I never clearly and publicly acknowledged the harms I did beyond to those three named women. But trust me, even though I haven't pointed to these injuries, I accept that I caused them, I regret that harm, and I won't do it again.

You shouldn't need an explicit apology to trust me on that.

Trust that I am listening and learning, and that if any of my trusted friends had told me I was messing up and hurting people or community -- even if they had told me it was too soon to try to come back, or that I hadn't done enough to repair the harms I had done or to communicate that I really comprehend those harms -- even if what they told me didn't match what I wanted to hear, trust that I would take their advice very seriously rather than rushing forward, centering my own redemption narrative, and doing further harm.

You should trust me.

And really, how can you question that I understand the size and shape of the harm I've done? Sure, I've let commenters on my blog post characterize distrust of me as wrong, as cruelly refusing to let me move on, as a public flogging, a hanging, a witch-hunt. Sure, I haven't challenged those characterizations at all. But still, you should trust that I understand that I can't demand anyone's forgiveness -- that I'm not entitled to anyone's trust.

Because I really am listening. I really do get it. I really am a good guy.

You should trust me.

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